Top winter dirt racing is ready to return to the Midwest with the opening of the Oaklawn Park meet on Friday, Jan. 12. Freezing temperatures will mean a slow start to the season in January, but we can look forward to warming weather for the best part of the meet, which comes over the course of February, March and early April. All the while, the track will feature one of the country’s best 3-year-old stakes programs, as Oaklawn marches on to Arkansas Derby Day on Saturday, April 14.
Oaklawn Park is just one of the many pathways to the Kentucky Derby, with prep races like the Southwest Stakes and the Rebel leading up to the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby. Oaklawn’s 3-year-old schedule wastes no time getting into high gear with the running of the Smarty Jones stakes on MLK Day and the Grade 3 Southwest Stakes scheduled for President’s Day.
Looking farther down the road, the Arkansas Derby is the centerpiece of the track’s “Racing Festival of the South,” a closing-week, stakes-filled mega-event from April 12-14, when the track runs seven stakes races, including five graded stakes like the Grade 2 Oaklawn Handicap, the Grade 1 Apple Blossom, the Grade 3 Count Fleet Sprint, the Grade 3 Fantasy and, of course, the $1 million Arkansas Derby (G1).
The 3-year-old stakes scene at Oaklawn Park always gets a major boost each year with the constant presence of Bob Baffert, who ships in regularly from California with prime contenders for the Southwest, Rebel and Arkansas Derby, such as he did with eventual Triple Crown winner American Pharoah in 2015.
Oaklawn Park generally does not get the notoriety of the other key winter meets from around the country, due in large part to the fact that Oaklawn does not have a turf course. Nevertheless, the day-to-day dirt racing at Oaklawn — featuring big fields and good betting races — is nearly on par with anything else running at this time of year, especially in the Midwest.
Handicapping at Oaklawn Park has its nuances, and it pays to pay attention to the daily happenings at the meet. While the racing surface is mostly regarded as fair at Oaklawn, the track does have some prevailing biases to watch out for, in addition to some occasional track biases that tend to pop up here and there in terms of inside or outside paths and/or speed or off-the-pace running style biases, as the weather tends to change track conditions from day to day.
The Oaklawn dirt course is a one-mile oval with two different finish lines — the traditional finish line, and an auxiliary finish line at the sixteenth pole which serves as the finish for one-mile races. This makes the run-up into the first turn longer at a mile and therefore lessens the disadvantages to outside posts. The second finish line has, in fact, made a big difference for Oaklawn horseplayers, raising the overall success rate for outside gates in route races to nearly equal that of inside posts, which, in the past, always had been advantageous over outside draws in Oaklawn routes.
Inside posts, and particularly the rail, are generally still good at all distances. However, the drop off from inside to outside is not really as dramatic as it used to be at Oaklawn, especially in route races where the inside posts once ruled, but now, thanks in part to the auxiliary one-mile finish line at the sixteenth pole, horses can have relatively fair shots from almost any gate.
Instead of using post positions to help you narrow down the fields when handicapping Oaklawn, a better idea these days is to use horses’ running styles, and combine them with a careful eye on the track’s changing track biases when hunting for Oaklawn winners.
At Oaklawn, the prevailing running-style bias is always toward horses with early speed, or at least tactical speed — those that can stay within 2-3 lengths of the early lead. Due to the one-mile Oaklawn track layout and relatively short stretch run in comparison to other tracks (even shorter at one mile), Oaklawn always has been this way and probably always will be to some degree.
I suggest using track bias information in your continued handicapping at Oaklawn and keep track for yourself how the track plays daily. When you see a horse exiting a race on a bias day, check the horse’s running style, post position, or inside/outside trip on the bias day in question. When a horse exits a race where it benefited from running with a track bias, downgrade that horse in the race you’re currently handicapping. When you see a horse that exits a race where it was hurt by running against a track bias, then go ahead and upgrade that horse in the race you’re currently handicapping. This is a great way to ensure that you end up betting more live overlays during the meet rather than landing on bad underlays.
The dominating humans to focus on at Oaklawn Park tend to be STEVE ASMUSSEN in the trainer’s race and RICARDO SANTANA JR. in the jockey standings. Both won their respective titles again in 2017 after also enjoying highly successful meets in 2016.
Asmussen earned his eighth Oaklawn trainer title with 41 wins in 2017 and can usually be counted on for at least that many victories after clicking for 46 wins and an Oaklawn record $3,448,729 in earnings in 2016 (thanks in part to Creator’s win in the Arkansas Derby that year).
Santana, meanwhile, earned his fifth straight Oaklawn Park riding title in 2017 with 53 wins, which was a good season by any other yardstick but his own; he won the 2016 riding title with an astounding 80 victories and $4,064,073 in purses, which also was an Oaklawn record.
Both Asmussen and Santana should be able to, once again, lead the way in their respective categories throughout the Oaklawn season.
After running away with the jockey title in 2016, Santana again faced stiff competition last year from his old Oaklawn Park nemesis RAMON VAZQUEZ. Santana battled it out all season with Vazquez, who finished 6 wins behind with 47 victories, and Oaklawn up-and-comer ALEX CANCHARI, who won 45 races at the 2017 meet, along with GEOVANNI FRANCO, who also had 45 wins.
Is this the year one of those guys finally knocks off Santana to take leading rider honors at Oaklawn? Stay tuned. Vazquez, after all, lost the jockey title by only two wins to Santana back in 2015 and is the only other guy in the jock’s room to get really consistently plum riding assignments from many of the top barns.
Elsewhere in the jockey standings, it is worth mentioning that LUIS CONTRARAS led all regular riders with the exception of Santana at the 2017 Oaklawn meet in terms of win percentage (19 percent) and in-the-money [ITM] percentage (46 percent). Both of those stats made him a profitable play for handicappers and certainly make him a much more preferable option this year than someone like CHANNING HILL, who had a very disappointing 16-win season at Oaklawn in 2017 after finishing a promising fourth in the 2016 standings with 33 wins, including four stakes that year.
The other jockey to watch this season will be JON COURT, who has focused his efforts at Oaklawn both of the last two years after a comeback from an injury-riddled 2015. He won 27 races at Oaklawn in 2017 (seventh place) and 29 races at Oaklawn in 2016 (sixth).
In the trainer standings, Asmussen was again Oaklawn’s leading trainer in 2017, when he won 41 races — 10 more than the runner-up, ROBERTINO DIODORO. Diodoro started to become a major factor at Oaklawn two years ago, when he won 22 races from 70 starters for a giant 31-percent win rate. He followed that up with a big 31-win season at Oaklawn in 2017, including big numbers in terms of winning percentage (25 percent) and ITM percentage (52 percent).
Diodoro’s operation unfortunately lost some steam later in 2017 due to a suspension following a positive drug test, so it will be interesting to see if he can put up the same kinds of numbers again this season. If anyone can challenge the new Hall of Famer Asmussen, it probably will be him, but let’s face it: Asmussen starts nearly twice as many horses at the meet as any other Oaklawn trainer, so it would be difficult or someone else knocking him off the throne.
CHRIS HARTMAN finished a distant second to Asmussen in the 2016 trainer standings and before that had been 2015’s leading trainer at Oaklawn, with very strong numbers (129-34-21-14, $1.1 million, 26 percent/53 percent). Hartman was only average in 2017, however, winning just 21 times for a down year in terms of both win percentage (16 percent) and ITM percentage (42 percent).
Without trainers like Diodoro and Hartman trending upwards, who will be the best alternatives versus Asmussen for bettors at Oaklawn this season? My money will be on BRAD COX, who was third in the 2017 trainer’s standings with 26 wins, but accomplished that with only 94 starters to lead all major trainers at Oaklawn with a 28-percent success rate. His ITM percentage was also very good at 50 percent. This was no fluke, either, considering his 26-percent win rate in 2016.
FEDERICO VILLAFRANCO is also another good bet, based on the fact that he compiled nearly identical 22-win, 17-percent-win-rate seasons in both 2017 and 2016.
There are three months of great racing ahead at the annual Oaklawn Park meet, so there will be plenty of time for to get your slice of the pari-mutuel winnings as long as you don’t overlook this great annual winter/spring racing season.
Best of luck, and enjoy the meet at Oaklawn!
Noel Michaels has been involved in many aspects of thoroughbred racing for more than two decades, as a Breeders’ Cup-winning owner and as a writer, author, handicapper, editor, manager and promoter of the sport for a wide range of companies including Daily Racing Form and Nassau County Off-Track Betting.
He also is regarded as the leading source of news and information for handicapping tournaments and the author of the “Handicapping Contest Handbook: A Horseplayer’s Guide to Handicapping Tournaments”, which made his name virtually synonymous with the increasingly-popular tournament scene.
In addition to contributing to US Racing, he is also an analyst on the Arlington Park broadcast team.